As Ramadan kicks off this week, families across Morocco will be tucking into the same dish—harira soup.
“Ninety-nine percent of Moroccans eat harira every day during the 29 or 30 days of Ramadan,” says Taoufik Ghaffouli, the general manager of La Maison Arabe, Marrakech’s legendary restaurant and hotel. The silky tomato soup loaded with legumes, fresh herbs, and spices is served literally every evening as part of the fast-breaking meal known as iftar.
First, a little background. Ramadan is celebrated in the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It moves ahead slightly each year, and this year runs June 18th through July 17th. It’s an important and festive time when consumption of food and drink are forbidden between sunrise and sunset. One of the five pillars of Islamic faith, fasting during the holy month, is an obligatory act for all of those who are able. The abstinence shows obedience to God and atonement for sins and errors, while the feeling of hunger helps to develop compassion for the less fortunate. It is a time when people have a heightened sense of spirituality.
For Moroccan Muslims, tradition is important. And following the tradition of the prophet Mohammed, the first item eaten after sundown is dates. “The Prophet preferred to break the fasting with dates in odd numbers,” explains culinary historian Mohammed Nahir, an assistant professor at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech, “Three or five or seven.” Dates are easy to digest, quickly restore blood sugar, and quell the initial pangs of hunger.
Then comes harira. Served in colorfully-decorated bowls and accompanied by chebakia: honeyed, flower-shaped cookies sprinkled with sesame seeds, it’s traditionally eaten using a special spoon with a deep ladle-like shape that has been carved from lemon or orange wood.
The soup is soothing and easy on the empty stomach, and further prepares the body for the large meal to follow. And it plays a key nutritional role, says the celebrated Casablanca chef Meyrem Cherkaoui. “It’s a hearty dish which allows you to keep fasting throughout the day.”
But it’s goes much beyond that. “Harira is a symbol of Ramadan,” Aziz Begdouri, owner of Riad Maison Blanche in Tangier’s dense Kasbah neighborhood, tells The Plate.
Cooks begin preparing the soup in the afternoon and its simmering aromas emanate from homes. “You smell it walking down the street,” says Begdouri. Discussing the soup and its various receipes is, he added, “the topic number one during Ramadan.”
Tomatoes, pulses, usually some meat for flavor, and plenty of fresh herbs—parsley, coriander (cilantro), and celery leaves—are found in nearly every pot. Markets do a brisk trade in these ingredients, and during Ramadan, the price of tomatoes goes way up and parsley and coriander can be hard to find.
But beyond those ingredients, there is little agreement, and certainly no unified version of the dish.
“There are as many recipes for harira in Morocco as there are cooks,” a woman in Fès said to me once, and she was hardly exaggerating. Some versions are rich red from abundant tomatoes (and tomato paste), others more yellowish from turmeric and saffron. There are those with nuances of cinnamon, ginger, or caraway, and those that include more potent cubeb peppers or even cumin. Some cooks add lentils and chickpeas, others just one or the other. Lamb might be added for flavor, or beef. And depending on the season and region of the country, different vegetables might be included. In some parts of the country, a handful of rice is tossed in while elsewhere cooks add small vermicelli pasta.
Yet the final result is the same: A soup that is rich, substantial, comforting. Prepared in generous-size batches, it’s also festive. “This is a soup that symbolizes sharing and family gatherings,” Cherkaoui said, like weddings and baptisms.
On the iftar table during Ramadan, though, harira is accompanied by plenty of replenishing liquids—tea and coffee, milk, juices, and fruit purées thickened with avocado. There are bowls of olives, hard-boiled eggs to be dipped into cumin, and fresh cheeses, marmalades, and honey to eat with various breads. These range from puffed, pita bread-like rounds to layered rghayif flatbread cooked on a skillet and unleavened harsha made with cornmeal. And there are sweets, of course. Hard, biscotti-like fekkas and date-stuffed semolina cookies are two favorites.
And this, really, is just the start. After socializing—either at home or out—Moroccans generally have a late, lavish dinner, said Nahir. Depending on the time of year that Ramadan falls, this is between 10 pm and 1 am, and might include a selection of salads and appetizers, a hearty tagine of fish, chicken, or lamb, and plenty of fruit.
Then, after some hours of sleep, it’s time to eat again. People rise in the pre-dawn darkness for a light meal before the day’s fast commences.
By afternoon, cooks are back in the kitchen preparing a new pot of harira for the feast that begins at sundown.
Here is my latest version of harira, which should be served with dates.
8 ounces stewing beef or lamb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 cup finely chopped celery stalks, tender green parts and leaves only
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1/3 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/3 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup loosely packed, finely chopped fresh celery leaves
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dried lentils
4 ripe medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and puréed with all the juices
3 Tbsp tomato paste
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 oz vermicelli or angel hair pasta, broken into 3/4-in lengths, about 1/4 cup
1 lemon, cut into wedges
12 dates, preferably mejhoul
In a large soup pot, put the beef, celery, onion, parsley, cilantro, celery leaves, butter, and olive oil. Generously season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Rinse the lentils with water, drain, and add. Cover with 8 cups water, stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 45 minutes.
In a bowl, blend the tomatoes, tomato concentrate, ginger, and cinnamon. Add to the soup along with the chickpeas. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
In mixing bowl, dissolve the flour in 1 cup water and whisk very well.
Add the flour mixture to the soup in a slow but steady stream while continually stirring. Cook, stirring frequently to avoid any sticking, for 10 minutes. Sprinkle in the vermicelli and cook until the pasta is tender, about 5 minutes. Thin with a little water if desired. The texture of the soup should be velvety.
Serve in bowls with lemon wedges on the side and with the dates on a small platter.
Jeff Koehler is the author of Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes . His new book, Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea, was just published by Bloomsbury. Follow him on Twitter at @koehlercooks.